A few more comments on the scientific thinking thing, because it’s generated a bunch of comments. As usual, some of them are good points, and some of them have completely misunderstood what I was trying to say. so let’s take another crack at it.

While the post was worded somewhat strongly, I’m not really trying to stake out a position diametrically opposed to what Neil DeGrasse Tyson said. In fact, I suspect we agree more than we disagee. We certainly share the same broad goal, namely to see more people thinking more scientifically more often. The difference is really a question of emphasis. That is, what’s the best way to encourage people to put in the effort to think more scientifically?

Tyson, like most well-intentioned people using the “scientific thinking is hard” line, is going for a sort of “challenge is good” approach: basically trying to reassure people who think science is hard that yes, it’s a difficult thing to do, and even scientists have to work at it. This is followed by “… but it’s totally worth the effort.” You sort of soothe the concerns of people who are struggling by saying that even people who are really good at this stuff find it challenging (we do this with students a lot, and there’s often an “I got a lousy grade in this class when I took it…” anecdote to go with this), but that there’s a payoff to the effort.

My preferred approach, as I’ve tried to lay out in that post is to try to show people that the scientific approach is just like stuff that they already do all the time. Scientific thinking and scientific problem solving use exactly the same mental skills that you apply to pretty much any task more complicated than breathing. It takes some effort, to be sure, but that’s effort that most people already put out in other areas of their lives, so it’s not beyond anybody’s capabilities.

Why the difference? I have two problems with the “scientific thinking is hard” line, one societal and one attitudinal.

The societal problem is, basically, that whatever approach you take to the question of trying to get people to think more scientifically has to contend not just with individual attitudes, but with the attitudes of society as a whole. My fear is that saying “the scientific mode of thinking does not come naturally” plays far too much into existing negative stereotypes.

From a very young age, we’re bombarded with images and stories telling is that Science Is Not Natural. Mad-scientist villains are everywhere in pop culture, science nerds are the butt of endless jokes, right-wing politicians rail against “eggheads,” left-wing academics bemoan the “dehumanizing” effects of science, and on, and on. The constant message pounded in, both consciously and unconsciously, is that science is not something that ordinary people do, and that you have to be some sort of freak or prodigy to even be interested in science, let alone understand what it’s all about.

This constant negative drumbeat has amazingly far-reaching effects. I busted my ass to write a general-audience book explaining quantum physics in a way that non-scientists will be able to get something out of. And I have numerous friends and relatives who bought the book out of a sense of friendly obligation, but won’t read it. “Oh, I’ll never understand that…” they say, without really trying to read it. It drives me nuts, but it’s not their fault– they’ve spent their whole lives being told that science is something only an elite few can understand, to the point where they reject even science books specifically aimed at non-scientists.

When somebody trying to promote scientific thinking stands up and says “scientific thinking does not come naturally,” I worry that the reaction of most people is “I knew it!” I worry that they don’t continue listening to the “… but it’s totally worth it” that comes next. When you lead with “The stuff I’m about to teach you is really hard,” far too many students, and people in general, hear that as “You’re probably not capable of understanding this, and that’s okay.” Rather than reassuring people, it reinforces the stereotype that science is only for nerds and eggheads.

That’s why I prefer to try to emphasize that science is not a nerdly endeavour, but a human one. That thinking scientifically is something absolutely anybody can do, and doesn’t require some genetic-freak special mental architecture. The message I’m aiming for is “You can do this” first, and “if you put in the effort” second. If you can show people that things they already do in their everyday lives use the same mental toolkit that scientists employ, maybe we can tip some of them into thinking that science is something that perfectly normal people can do, and undercut the stereotypes a little bit. It may not turn ordinary people into scientists, but it can at least soften the messages they pass on to their kids, and get more of them to think positively about science.

The second problem I have with the “Science is hard” line is attitudinal, on the part of the people who push it. This does not apply to Neil DeGrasse Tyson specifically, who has always been extremely generous and gracious whenever I’ve seen him interacting with the general public, but lots of other public scientists fall well short of his standard. The attitudinal problem is that people running with the “scientific thinking is not natural” line too often tip over into disdain or even contempt for people who fail to reach some threshold level of scientific thinking.

It’s far too easy to go from “thinking scientifically is difficult” to “people who fail to think scientifically aren’t trying hard enough,” to “people who fail to think scientifically are lazy and/or stupid” to “people who fail to think scientifically are Bad People.” And when you make that last step, you go from potentially being part of the solution to being part of the problem. When scientists speak of non-scientists with disdain or contempt, that not only reinforces the stereotype that scientists are Different, but adds an additional element, namely “Scientists are assholes.”

This is the very core of the “Don’t Be a Dick” argument, that when you stop thinking of people who don’t think like scientists as people who are confused and in need of encouragement, and think of them instead as people who are actively Wrong, you cut yourself off from them. If the message you’re sending–explicitly or implicitly– is “People who don’t think scientifically are dumb and lazy,” most people don’t respond by saying “Wow, I better make more effort to think like a scientist,” they say “Wow, that guy’s a dick, and I want nothing to do with him.”

This is not to say that people who cynically exploit confusion and non-scientific thinking for personal gain should not be denounced. Political hacks and company spokesmen who deny global warming or spread lies about vaccinations should absolutely be countered at every turn, as emphatically as possible. Anybody who goes on tv selling magic bracelets at $20 a pop claiming their “positive frequencies” will give you special powers is a scam artist and should be run out of business. Those people are Bad People.

But the people who fall for this sort of thing aren’t Bad People, they’re just confused. And most of the time, what they deserve is not disdain and contempt but gentle (but firm) correction. That will do more good than heaping scorn on them, which will just drive them away.

Again, I’m not saying that this line of argument necessarily leads to sneering contempt, or accusing Tyson of any of this sort of behavior. And you can perfectly well get to the same position starting from my preferred approach, though I like to think it adds a step or two to the journey. But I see an awful lot of disdain and contempt out there, and I think it’s a dangerous road to start down. Put that together with the societal problem, and I cringe every time I hear somebody start talking about how scientific thinking is inherently difficult.

As I said at the beginning, I think Tyson and I would agree more than we disagree (see also some other responses to comments about the podcast). And in the clips and appearances I’ve seen by him, he’s done a really good job of walking the line between “scientific thinking is hard” and “anyone can do science.” When he fields questions about the 2012 nonsense, for example, he tends to emphasize that people can verify the scientific truth for themselves, with a tiny bit of research. I think that’s great, and just about the best approach to take with people who are being fooled by pseudo-scientific scams.

This is all really just a question of attitudes and emphasis, and what you want to lead with. I’m fairly certain we all agree about the goal, we just disagree about the best strategy for reaching it.

Comments

  1. #1 Taylor M.
    March 10, 2011

    There is definitely a balancing act when communicating to other people about the challenges of science. It’s not going to be possible to pick on strategy of approach. Everybody is different. Some people hear that science is difficult and they rise to the challenge. Others would do better to hear that they are already thinking like a scientist and ease them into the process.

    I tend to lean more towards the ‘nicer’ side of that strategy. Painting science and scientific thinking in a positive light can’t be a bad thing and hopefully it convinces more people to me active in the field. Going more towards the ‘tough love’ side of science can have the effect of people throwing up defensive walls to protect themselves from this ‘unnatural’ hardship. Either way, I don’t think one strategy is necessarily more correct than the other, just that each method will have an audience for which it works better. Testing this theory should be a part of the challenge of changing attitudes towards scientific thinking.

  2. #2 Taylor M.
    March 10, 2011

    There is definitely a balancing act when communicating to other people about the challenges of science. It’s not going to be possible to pick on strategy of approach. Everybody is different. Some people hear that science is difficult and they rise to the challenge. Others would do better to hear that they are already thinking like a scientist and ease them into the process.

    I tend to lean more towards the ‘nicer’ side of that strategy. Painting science and scientific thinking in a positive light can’t be a bad thing and hopefully it convinces more people to me active in the field. Going more towards the ‘tough love’ side of science can have the effect of people throwing up defensive walls to protect themselves from this ‘unnatural’ hardship. Either way, I don’t think one strategy is necessarily more correct than the other, just that each method will have an audience for which it works better. Testing this theory should be a part of the challenge of changing attitudes towards scientific thinking.

  3. #3 Moshe
    March 10, 2011

    Two quick comments:

    First, just because some assertion leads to undesirable consequences does not mean it is false. Doing science might or might not be fundamentally different from other human activities in ways that could be identified and perhaps even quantified. The question of whether this might lead to condescending behaviour or any other unpleasant consequences is besides the point.

    On the question itself, I think it is a little bit of both. In my mind it is a lot like comparing myself leisurely swimming or playing basketball with an Olympic athlete. Yes, we both are doing some sort of physical activity. But, on a deeper level, in all ways that really matter what they do is a different sort of beast. As a consequence they have different physical and mental states, they live different lifestyle etc. etc. Similarly, I sympathize with the idea of the continuity of scientific thought with other type of reasonings, but I think in all ways that really matter it is also a different type of beast. After all, it takes long and intense training to get to the point where you can do science, and that training is not only about learning specific set of facts, it is more about teaching yourself to think correctly and efficiently.

  4. #4 abb3w
    March 10, 2011

    Chad Orzel: But the people who fall for this sort of thing aren’t Bad People, they’re just confused.

    This appears to oversimplify the relation.

    While I agree that most of scientific reasoning isn’t that different from most of the other logical abstract reasoning people routinely do, not all people are equally good at such reasoning. As such, people who fall for this sort of thing are not just confused, but may also be particularly prone to being confused. Contrariwise, saying this makes them “bad” people neglects the degree to which other virtues they have (as group tendency or individual counter-tendency) might outweigh this; on the other hand, such a trait is probably not what you would term a virtue.

    This, of course, does not address the nature-versus-nurture balance of such tendency, nor the degree to which environment can influence developing the tendency at various ages, nor whether the choice of gentle but firm correction, the choice of disdain and contempt, or some mix of the two is more effective. But similarly, while we may agree on goal, we may not just disagree on the best approach, but also disagree on the nature of the obstacles.

    You might care to look into Robert Altemeyer’s research; some of Matthew Lieberman’s writing about X-system versus C-system cognition might also be relevant to the broader question of the difficulty of scientific thinking.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    March 10, 2011

    In my mind it is a lot like comparing myself leisurely swimming or playing basketball with an Olympic athlete. Yes, we both are doing some sort of physical activity. But, on a deeper level, in all ways that really matter what they do is a different sort of beast. As a consequence they have different physical and mental states, they live different lifestyle etc. etc. Similarly, I sympathize with the idea of the continuity of scientific thought with other type of reasonings, but I think in all ways that really matter it is also a different type of beast. After all, it takes long and intense training to get to the point where you can do science, and that training is not only about learning specific set of facts, it is more about teaching yourself to think correctly and efficiently.

    The difference is that nobody points to the difficulty of training to be an Olympic athlete as a reason why other people can’t learn to swim at all. In fact, quite the opposite– great athletes are often held up as examples of hard work and perseverance that non-athletes should aspire to, or at least be inspired by. When scientists make it into the popular consciousness, on the other hand, they’re usually cited as examples of unique inherent genius, that we should be awed by but not expect to emulate.

    The fact that it takes years of training to become a professional scientist doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the inherent difficulty of the task, because it takes years of training to become a professional in just about anything worth doing. In most areas, we write the difference off as a difference in inclination and only secondarily as a difference in abilities– that is, most people wouldn’t be inclined to say that someone who is a good lawyer doesn’t have the mental abilities needed to be a good English professor. Instead, we say that that person chose to put in the years of training needed to become an attorney rather than the years of training needed to be an academic, for reasons of personal taste (they liked law better than literature) or finance (they would rather get paid lots of money than scrape by as a grad student and junior faculty member), or whatever.

    When the subject is science, though, everybody goes to innate ability first, as if only a tiny elite group of people with special inborn abilities can possibly handle science. Which is very flattering to the vanity of people in that elite, but provides an excuse for stereotyping scientists and a cop-out for students who don’t want to study the subject. And I don’t think that really holds up. That is, I think the main differences between professional scientists and other people is not so much an innate difference in capability but a difference in inclination. The brain of a successful scientist doesn’t operate in a qualitatively different manner than the brain of a successful attorney or the brain of a tenured English professor– the different types of people just find different types of problems interesting enough that they’re willing to put in large amounts of time training to study them.

  6. #6 Moshe
    March 10, 2011

    I think I agree with most of what you are saying, but I am not sure what it has to do with the question discussed. For example when you write “The brain of a successful scientist doesn’t operate in a qualitatively different manner than the brain of a successful attorney…” you present the issue in a way which is susceptible to scientific inquiry. Regardless what we’d like the answer to this question to be, it is what it is.

    But I think even that is besides the point. Even if there are no physiological differences, I think it is clear that the type of reasoning attorneys and scientists use, to give just two different examples, is qualitatively different from ordinary ways people reason in their private life. They are both specialized in different ways, they have their own language and way of argumentation, sometimes arcane traditions, and neither one of them would be very intuitive to an untrained person. In that sense I don’t agree that we are all scientists, any more than we are all attorneys (just because we have debates and arguments sometimes in which we defend our position).

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    March 10, 2011

    I wouldn’t say that everyone is a scientist, or that everyone is an attorney. But I would say that everyone thinks like a scientist from time to time. I would also say that everyone thinks like an attorney from time to time. The mental processes used by each of those specialized professions come in handy at various times in just about every profession there is. We tend to be more comfortable operating in whatever mode we use most often, but we can and do use multiple different modes.

    This is, in principle, subject to scientific testing, but it would be damnably difficult to sort out the effects of training from any inherent abilities. That is, you might find that lawyers and scientists tend to attack problems in different ways, but that could be mostly because they are trained to do so. What you would really need to do is to identify some set of mental processes that you think identify scientists rather than lawyers, and then do some longitudinal comparison of kids who are good at scientist-like things who go on to become lawyers and kids who are good at scientist-like things who become scientists (and kids who are good at lawyer-like things who go on to become scientists and kids who are good at lawyer-like things who go on to become lawyers), which would be a logistical nightmare to pull off.

    (Of course, the really scientific approach would be to find a bunch of people with whatever catalogue of mental skills you identify with scientists, and force half of them to become lawyers and half scientists, but good luck getting that past the ethics boards…)

  8. #8 Moshe
    March 10, 2011

    I think we are in agreement on everything but some semantic points. It also crossed my mind that my model of a scientist might be different from yours, a lot of my training was mathematics and everything to do with logical fallacies for example was emphasized early and often; as a result I am painfully aware how common those are in everyday thinking. Just one example on how the training does change things qualitatively.

  9. #9 Rob Monkey
    March 10, 2011

    Great posts, I think I’m pretty much in line with you, and I agree with your assessment of what Tyson might think of this. I think he’d find your comments interesting, and perhaps when speaking to a more scientific audience he might choose the tack you’ve taken. I completely agree with the idea that this is a good way to avoid Being A Dick, if you explain to people that they too have the power to think like a scientist, and that it’s not too hard. OTOH, I think there’s a whole LOTTA people out there, even people who seem intelligent, who just. don’t. care. They think all information is suspect because all they hear is the back-and-forth and the mangling of statistics. These aren’t PoMo idiots either, these are genuine non-philosophy majors who are starting to doubt the idea of an objective truth, mostly because they can’t even turn on the news anymore without getting 27 different (and wrong) viewpoints on a subject. Sigh, hopefully we can turn them around, but I’m rapidly becoming disillusioned that facts and intelligence can fight Fox News and conservatard leanings.

    Oh, and while I think anti-vaccine people should be intentionally injected with every disease they want to endanger us with (hyperbole), I have a hard time sympathizing with the Magic Bracelet idiots. I’m sorry, but you have to be an extra-special kind of moron to fall for a rubber bracelet with a hologram on it. A hologram? I mean, I could get it if these came out in the 80s when holograms were new and cool (or at least that’s when I first saw them), but now? Past the first decade of the 2000s? If the guy who invented those pieces of junk only donated the money he made to something worthwhile (science education maybe?), I’d consider him a national hero for exposing ignorance. A fool and his money are soon parted, and sometimes it should be that way ;)

  10. #10 quasihumanist
    March 10, 2011

    Re comments 6 and 7.

    I *do* think it is hard for a lot of people to think like a scientist, or like an attorney. You have to be able to keep three ideas in your head at the same time without undue effort, which a lot of adults can’t do.

    If “A causes B in the absence of C” is hard for you to understand because it takes hard mental work for you to remember A, B, and C simultaneously, then you are going to have trouble thinking like a scientist (or an attorney).

    I think cognitive skills such as (in this case) working memory can be trained. However, I mostly went to good schools as a kid and have been training my cognitive skills since I was 2. Others aren’t so lucky.

    (Then again, maybe I shouldn’t speak, given that I frequently misplay bridge hands even after I have correctly deduced where every important card is.)

  11. #11 Edward
    March 11, 2011

    By way of background, I teach math to inmates in a California prison. Scientific thinking may or may not be difficult; as a mathematician, I’m obviously unqualified to take a position on any subject directly involving the real world.

    But from heartbreaking experience, it’s clear that the abstraction involved in basic algebra is hard for many.

    People who can solve problems with numbers have all sorts of trouble when a variable is involve instead. Furthermore, for some incomprehensible reason, men who have trouble with simple arithmetic frequently can immediately solve problems involve converting between ounces and grams. Those are calculations they intimately understand.

    Geometry is even worse for these men. The very idea of a proof!

    And let’s not forget how long it took to invent or discover, depending on your philosophical bias, negative numbers and zero. These are obvious concepts, but only in retrospect.

    From a slightly different perspective, consider the Flynn Effect, that of population IQs as measured on standardized tests rising over time. Flynn ascribes it at least in part to an increase in training in abstraction. One of his examples was of asking a peasant what a rabbit and a dog have in common. The intellectually sophisticated (term used loosely) will of course know that they’re both mammals. The peasant, however, may reply that you use dogs to hunt rabbits.

  12. #12 Tom
    March 11, 2011

    Ditto to moshe’s first comment at 3. The first thing I thought when reading this was, just because you don’t like where it leads doesn’t make it wrong.

    The real difficulty in science for most people lies in making connections between things, I think. To use your leaky faucet example, does the amateur plumber notice something irregular in the washer that leads him/her to conclude WHY it’s causing the faucet to leak? If so, you have a theoretician. If not, you’ve got an empiricist. And we all know how empiricists are regarded. ;-)

  13. #13 Brian
    March 11, 2011

    I wanted to basically give a counterpoint to Edward@11’s comment.

    I find that in someways I guess, I think like a scientist, but much more than that, I think like a mathematician. Everything is abstraction, where possible (and often when not). I suppose you can consider this a subclass of “scientist”, as there are theoretical scientists, but the way you describe it is more “empiricist”.

    Also, I find that engineers think differently than scientists or mathematicians…

  14. #14 Laura
    March 13, 2011

    I have never really thought about the negative stereotypes that scientists face because I always thought of scientists as some of the most respected people in our culture. I feel that people look up to scientists, which at the same time makes them feel the inferior, and label science as “too difficult.” However, I feel that there are many resources out there, (such as the “for dummies” series) that make science comprehendible, and enjoyable if you are studying on your own for your enjoyment.

  15. #15 utopia27
    March 14, 2011

    I have to disagree with the premise here. What you’ve just described is pandering to the uneducated.

    as moshe@3 says above, just because it leads to conclusions that are undesirable, doesn’t make it so.

    Thinking rigorously and thoroughly _is_ difficult. It’s hard work. It’s hard work to train yourself to be able to analyze fact and argument, and make rational judgments and conclusions.

    It’s a fact that in our society that hard work and training is only undertaken by an elite group. And that that training and hard work lead to a recocnizable set of behaviors and attitudes (like intolerance of sloppy thinking, insistence on demonstrable fact rather than supposition and rumor, etc.).

    To go back to the analogy by chad@5, it’s not generally valid to congratulate the average couch potato (like me) that they’ve just incidentally run a 4-minute mile like an Olympic athlete. Or that they inadvertantly run a marathon and they just need to have it pointed out to them.

    Is it condescending and “Being a Dick” to point out that congress can’t reason it’s way out of a paper bag, and that just about every pronouncement from our elected leadership on scientific issues is balderdash? Is it elitist to point ou that the judges/lawyers on the bench don’t do any better (frequently worse) because the thinking they’re trained in has almost nothing of rigor to it (it’s all about cherry-picking fact and precedent to support a biased view in an adversarial context, and has _nothing_ to do with actual logical reasoning…).

    The problem is that our culture denegrates and derides actual rigor and analysis. As long as we continue to pander to the anti-intellectual cultural bias, we will continue to operate as a disrespected minority, rather than have our accomplishments and methods held up as an ideal to aspire to.

    Humans can be a rational animal. But it is not a natural state. It is a culturally learned skill and a habitual set of attitudes that requires effort, dedication, and discipline. Until our society values clarity of vision, perceptiveness, and thorough, rigorous analysis, the only portion of our society that will strive to put forth effort to improve their reasoning are those with an inclination to the challenges and pursuits that can only be attained by rigorous inquiry (like math and the sciences).

    Right now our society’s mantra is, “Sure that wasn’t really correct, but he was doing God’s work.” And I despair.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.